Nootropics: A beginner's guide to brain enhancing supplements
Nootropics: A beginner's guide to brain enhancing supplements
Can a pill really make you smarter?
Posted on December 20, 2018

The film Limitless with Bradley Cooper is probably the most popular fictional representation of a person's desire to improve their life with a quick fix, intelligence boosting pill. A more realistic representation of cognitive enhancers (smart drugs) would be the prescription drugs Adderall or Modafinil, but like the drug in Limitless both of these drugs are not without side effects and the potential for addictive dependency.

In comes the field of nootropics. Nootropics covers a wide range of drugs and supplements but in this post we will be focusing on natural nootropics that avoid the pitfalls of addiction and other side effects that prescription drugs bring about.

The premise that natural herbs, vitamins, and other nutrients can improve long term cognitive brain function without side effects sounds to be too good to be true, and as the saying goes it probably is. With nootropics this is no different.

Natural nootropics aren't a quick fix. Nutritional supplementation takes time and while some people report noticeable improvement within days or even hours, most report improvement after weeks. If you are looking for an immediate pick me up, try a cup of coffee. But more on caffeine later, such as why caffeine isn't a nootropic and why you should avoid nootropic formulations that contain it.

So let's begin with an overview of the natural nootropics most renowned for their effectiveness.

If you just want to dive into nootropics without reading about individual nootropic ingredients, you can skip to the end to read what I use for my daily nootropic stack and what to look out for to avoid junk products.

1. Vitamins B6, B9, and B12 - Where have all the good bacteria gone? 

Let's start off with the most common nootropic, B Vitamins! Okay so not a very exciting one to start off with, as most people already meet their daily value of B vitamins. Those most at risk for being deficient in B vitamins are the elderly and vegans but B12 deficiency is becoming more prevalent due to declining soil quality. To quickly summarize, B vitamins play an important role in improving neuronal integrity, neurotransmitter synthesis, and brain chemical conversion for better mood, focus, and circulation.

2. L-Theanine - An actual chill pill

L-Theanine is an amino acid that promotes relaxation and focus. It helps bring about mental clarity and meditative creativity. It's most commonly found in green tea, but you'd have to drink a lot of tea to reach a therapeutic dosage. Because L-Theanine induces relaxation and focus, it is commonly used alongside caffeine to complement its stimulation effect.  The recommended ratio of L-Theanine to caffeine is between 2:1 and  3:2. In other words, 150-200 mg L-Theanine per 100 mg caffeine.

3. Tyrosine - Don't stress but if you must make sure to take your tyrosine. 

Tyrosine (L-Tyrosine) is an amino acid that acts as a precursor for the neurotransmitters known as catecholamines. Catechowhats? Simply put, catecholamines play an important role in improving and maintaining strong memory, focus, attention, and mood.  As we get older our levels of these chemicals decline and when we get stressed we deplete our stores of these chemicals. This is where Tyrosine comes into play. Tyrosine helps replenish the catecholamine neurotransmitters that are depleted by stress.

4. Phosphatidylserine - What's good for the cell is good for the body. 

I won't go in depth about the biology of human cells but the surrounding membrane of a cell plays a critical role in your health and Phosphatidylserine is concentrated in the membrane of your brain cells. Like most biological substances that are good for us, as we get older our levels of Phosphatidylserine decline. Low levels of Phosphatidylserine can lead to memory loss, poor focus, and depressed moods. Supplementing Phosphatidylserine may slow and even reverse these, and other, symptoms of age-related cognitive decline. For the MILLENIALS and younger crowd, PS also shows nootropic potential as a mental performance enhancer

5. Citicoline - An all-in-one for focus, energy, and memory

Considered one of the best nootropics for brain health and cognition, it pretty much covers the spectrum of desired nootropic benefits. Citicoline was originally developed as a "drug" for stroke in Japan. It has no side effects and works by supplying choline and cytidine, two important compounds for brain health and cognition.

6. DHA - An ESSENTIAL fatty acid 

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid. Your brain is composed of 60% fat. 15 – 20% of your cerebral cortex is DHA. Even the retina in your eyes is 30 – 60% DHA. Making DHA the most essential nutrient for eye and brain health. Your body does not make DHA on its own. So you must get it from food or a supplement. The Recommended daily dosage of DHA is 1,000 mg, so make sure you are getting around that much from your preferred source. I recommend DHA from algae, which avoids mercury contamination from fish and is higher in DHA than EPA.

And now it's time for the ayurvedic side of nootropics...

7. Bacopa monnieri - The more you know

Bacopa is a natural botanical nootropic.  It is renowned for its ability to help with knowledge retention. It promotes "quick thinking" and cognitive performance under stress. Perfect for studying and before taking an exam! It may also help balance mood and help fight age-related cognitive decline.

8. Lion’s Mane Mushroom  - This is your brain on shrooms... no not those shrooms. 

Unlike it's psychedelic experience inducing relatives, Lion’s Mane is a mushroom with neuroprotective and nootropic effects. Lion’s Mane works by boosting nerve growth factor which helps with brain repair, maintenance and regeneration.

You can’t just supplement nerve growth factor directly, because it cannot cross the blood brain barrier.
That means the only other effective nootropic strategy is to try and enhance your own natural production of nerve growth factor, and lion's mane leads the way in that area.

9. Rhodiola Rosea – Energy for mind and body 

Rhodiola Rosea is a powerful adaptogen herb that has fast-acting affects on both mental and physical stress and fatigue. Popularized in Russia, it has been used by farmers, Olympic athletes and cosmonauts. It's is purported to improve stamina and strength, while also having a calming effect.

10. Pine Bark Extract – An antioxidant from bark with bite

Pine Bark possesses a rich supply of natural antioxidants, with a 50 times greater potency than vitamin C. As a nootropic, it is used primarily to increase cerebral blood flow. Other uses include the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, ADHD, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, chronic pain and erectile dysfunction (ED).

Hopefully this quick rundown of some of the most acclaimed nootropics helped you gain some insight into the world of cognitive enhancers. If you intend to make your own nootropic formulation, you should spend a lot more time researching these ingredients!

If scientific experimentation with individual ingredients isn't your cup of tea, here are a few tips I personally abide by before purchasing a formulation.

1. Avoid formulations with added caffeine. 

Having caffeine in a formula comes off as a crutch and can mask the actual effectiveness of the product. Not to mention, most people get enough caffeine in their diet and others choose to avoid it entirely.

2.  Look for quality forms of B vitamins and herbal extracts. 

If the formulation includes B vitamins, make sure it includes the methylcolbalymin form and not the cyanocobalamin form of B12. If it includes Bacopa, it should be the more potent extract form compared to the lesser quality powder form.

3. Be suspicious of formulations that use proprietary blends.

If a product doesn't disclose the serving amount per ingredient, it isn't a product I would trust. Transparency is a more honest approach to selling supplements and not disclosing amounts could actually be dangerous to the consumer.

My personal daily nootropic stack includes a serving of algae oil for DHA, a vision supplement, and a premade nootropic formulation, Mind Lab Pro. Nootropics on average are more expensive than your typical multivitamin. My premade nootropic alone runs me about $1.60/day with the algae oil and vision supplement adding about another $2/day to the cost. For me, a premade nootropic stack provides a convenience factor that justifies the price. After trying multiple premade formulas, I decided on Mind Lab Pro because it does not contain caffeine and has a well-rounded but not excessive amount of high quality nootropics. You can buy it directly from the provider on their website at  ($ 65 at the time of this writing). 

I would be interested in hearing personal experiences from existing users of nootropics, or if this post has motivated you to start I look forward to your commentary in the future!